1. To test hypotheses concerning adaptation and acclimation of tree species to shaded habitats we determined the growth, biomass partitioning and morphology of seedlings of nine near-boreal tree species in high- and low-light greenhouse environment (25 and 5% of full sunlight, respectively), comparable to sunlit gap and shaded microsites in boreal forests. The species differ widely in shade tolerance, seed size and leaf life span.
2. In low light, all species allocated proportionally more biomass to stems and less to roots, but the same to foliage, compared with the high-light environment. At a common size, all species had finer leaf morphology (higher specific leaf area, SLA) but coarser root morphology (lower specific root length, SRL) in low than high light. From a whole plant perspective, all species enhanced leaf area per unit plant mass (leaf area ratio, LAR) in low light and root length per unit plant mass (root length ratio, RLR) in high light.
3. Shade-intolerant deciduous species had higher RGR, SLA and SRL than larger seeded evergreens: ranking from Populus, Betula and Larix spp., then to five evergreen Pinus, Picea and Thuja spp., which were generally comparable in these traits. There were no changes in growth rankings of species between high- and low-light environments, nor consistent differences among species in biomass partitioning. Hence, species differences in leaf and root morphology (SLA, SRL) drove whole plant patterns, such as Populus, Betula and Larix had greater total leaf area and root length per unit plant mass (LAR and RLR, respectively) than the evergreens. Interspecific variation in RGR in both high and low light was positively correlated (r≈ 0·9) with SLA, SRL, LAR and RLR, and negatively correlated (r≈–0·9) to seed mass and leaf life span.
4. These data suggest that SLA, SRL, NAR and RGR are closely associated with variation in life-history traits and that variation in leaf and root structure more strongly influences patterns of RGR among species and light environments than does biomass partitioning.